Friday, January 16, 2009

Pernicious nonsense

A group of British Jews (mostly associated with IJV) and Muslims have a relatively sensible letter in today's Guardian:
As members of the Jewish Black Asian Forum, we are distressed and outraged at the pointless loss of life and humanitarian disaster in Gaza. The values we share, and the stories of loss and exclusion we bring to our discussions , drive us to speak out together. As members of British communities closely connected to Israel and Palestine, we call on Israel to immediately end its use of military force in Gaza and on Hamas to cease firing rockets into Israel. Our government, together with other governments and international actors, must engage with the authorities in Israel, Palestine and Gaza to help facilitate a lasting peace in the region and an end to the occupation.
More or less what I think, although the word "the occupation" is a little ambiguous.

At the other end of the liberal spectrum is a letter from Eva Figes, which is so vitriolic I'd like to believe she fired it off while drunk if it weren't for the fact she has previous:
At last the west is coming clean. Palestinians are freedom fighters, not terrorists, who have suffered 60 years of injustice inflicted by the real axis of evil, Israel and the US. The murderous attack on Gaza is an insane attempt at ethnic cleansing before Obama takes over.
What, all Palestinians are freedom fighters? No terrorists at all?

Somewhere in between on this spectrum was a long letter (the top one on the page) by a very long list of people, some of whom I respect a lot (indeed, one even links to this blog!).

Many of the signatories profess one or another form of Marxism. Yet, in the utterly ahistorical framing of its argument, the letter violates one of Marx's core principles: that politics is always historical, that categories are always in movement. A "a war that Israel has been waging against the people of Palestine for more than 60 years. The goal of this war has never changed..." Here, history dissolves. "Israel" becomes a mythical beast, frozen in the endless repetition of its evil actions. Did the Israel of 1948 use "overwhelming military force"? Or, rather, were not the weapons it had to hand those the Palestinians used in the First Intifada?

And what do "the principle of democratic self-determination" and "the right to resist military aggression and colonial occupation" mean in concrete terms? What, specifically, is the democratic self-determination of one ethnic group, if it denies that to another? What, even more to the point, does "Israel must lose"? The obligation to take sides the signatories claim is no more pressing in this case than it is in the case of the Hutu and the Tutsi, where self-determination for one can mean extermination for the other in a zero-sum game. "Justice and peaceful co-existence" cannot spring from the defeat of Israel by Hamas, any more than justice and peaceful co-existence can be achieved by bombing Gaza into dust.

It is true, of course, that the conflict is not symmetrical, and that Gaza's electorate voted for Hamas. But the signatories of the letter are stuck in the reality of the First Intifada, when the figure of "Palestinian resistance" was the child throwing stones at an Israeli tank. Since then, we have seen the militarisation of the Palestinian struggle, the evacuation of all social content from it: the suicide bomber rather than the stone thrower. And, now, in this Third Intifada, the stones have been replaced by rockets supplied by the Iranian theocracy.

So, when the signatories talk about "the right to resist military aggression and colonial occupation" and say "Israel must lose", the reality is the triumph of a fascist state, not the beginning of justice. The Hamas regime, which continues to fire on Israel, which continues to deploy its its children as human shields, which murders its political opponents, which brutalises its own population, does not represent "the people of Gaza and the West Bank", any more than the Ayatollahs represent the people of Iran or the Nazi state represented the people of Germany.

What the people of Gaza need, rather than this sort of hollow gestural pseudo-solidarity, is precisely a ceasefire and humanitarian assistance. Cheering on their war-mongers will not bring them justice or peace.

The reason this letter is not just nonsense, then, but pernicious nonsense, as J Frank Parnell might have said, is the politics that follows here in the UK. The "British people must take all feasible steps to oblige Israel to comply with these demands," they write, "starting with a programme of boycott, divestment and sanctions." Starting with boycott, divestment and sanctions means starting with the harassment of underpaid workers in Belfast shopping malls and London Starbucks branches. It means starting with besieging scholars at SOAS and violently demanding their political loyalty. It means starting with racist threats against Jewish citizens in the UK.

And if that's where it starts, where does it go next?

UPDATE: MORE HERE.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Let's look at some statistics of the conflict:



“Despite the media's obsession with the Mideast conflict, it has cost many fewer lives than the youth bulges in West Africa, Lebanon or Algeria.

In the six decades since Israel's founding, "only" some 62,000 people (40,000 Arabs, 22,000 Jews) have been killed in all the Israeli-Arab wars and Palestinian terror attacks.


During that same time, some 11 million Muslims have been killed in wars and terror attacks -- mostly at the hands of other Muslims.

In Arab nations such as Lebanon (150,000 dead in the civil war between 1975 and 1990) or Algeria (200,000 dead in the Islamists' war against their own people between 1999 and 2006),”

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123171179743471961.html




This puts the obsession with Israel in perspective!

john said...

Disinvestment should start with military sales, not shopping centres. As a start, that would be good, and should apply for the rest of the world's arms sales as well. Stop arming them (not that I think we want to see them fight it out with stones, David and Goliath style, inverted). But you're surely not wanting to suggest we excuse the massive excess of this Israeli aggression on Gaza are you?

Yes, the statement could have been stronger (more 'Marxist' - with that lot of signatories - ha), and I think calling on the Government to do anything was kind of futile. This Government? Pah. But even if there is a tone of 'cry' of frustration in the letter, it is only the Guardian, a lousy pretend left paper, not a revolutionary rag. This letter belongs on a spectrum of views that might also include somewhat smarter evaluations of Hamas than you might give credit. And on the other hand, or perhaps yet another end of the spectrum, there is a provocative collection of materials/posts/videos to be found via this blog here. They at least deserve consideration - its clearly not Starbucks that the protesters want to close down, whatever the observer might have implied on the weekend.
Immediate withdrawal, no weapons sales, demilitarization... I want to see all those academics talk about these things.
best
John

Renegade Eye said...

I agree with the direction John is going.

This issue brings out the most irrationality than any other.

A start is do away with analogies as Warsaw is Gaza etc.

Another thing is the views all people in a nation agree. Many on the left forget there is a left in Israel or that many Palestinians oppose both Hamas and Fatah. Read the transcript of today's "Democracy Now" show, where a Palestinian academic says Palestinians despise Fatah and Hamas.

fred vest said...

"where does it go next?"

fuckwittery from the cobweb left like this:-

"Weyman Bennett of the SWP’s central committee was heard demanding that Israeli Jews “should go back to where they came from … New York or wherever”."

it's at times like this that the british liberal/left really demonstrates it's complete and utter bankruptcy - it's also amazing how much credence they seem to give to 'democracy' when it suits them, i.e. hamas is legitmate and represents an homogenous expression of the people of palestine because they were democratically elected - what happened to all that 'not in my name' stuff from a few years ago vis a viz iraq etc..., does the return to power of bush and blair a year or so after the start of the war signify that these actions have been stamped with legitmacy and represents the popular expression of the uk & us peoples - that argument wouldn't last 10 seconds with a bankrupt lefty yet they employ the very same logic when finger poking everyone into giving unconditional support for hamas as a proxy for the palestinian people - as if hamas would give two shiny sticks about getting 'support' from a bunch of impotent lefty's in britain anyway

also this hierarchy of oppression sticks in the jaw a bit, why do lefties never get worked up about massacres in congo or other areas of africa - lefty outrage at israel seems more of a convenience for those doing it rather than some genuine universal concern for the plight of humanity

les said...

bob--an excellent post. i think you're comments are spot on, especially your remark about how in so much of what passes for a left political analysis, the entity known as "Israel" (good use of quotation marks there) is talked about as if it were some kind of mythical or eternal evil. there are times i think that over the last 7 or 8 years large swathes of the left have done nothing except to parrot or imitate the same kind of discourse that g.w. bush first treated us to with his remarks about "the axis of evil" and have merely substituted israel and the us. and that's all they've done, which is about as undialectical as one can get. in fact, it shows they're ultimately more comfortable with metaphysics or quasi-religious concepts, rather than anything connected with left politics. and that's very frightening.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Beg pardon, Bob - I disagree with your evaluation of the academics' letter as being "somewhere in between". Read with care, it becomes clear that it is the first time when a large group of British "progressives" declares in fact a) that the State of Israel is illegitimate - see the reference to 60 years - it's not a typo, I am sure and b) calls effectively for its destruction - see the need for the war to be lost.

I am sure there is no need to make an effort to read between the lines in this letter. This is why I said that another line was crossed by publication of that letter. Here, I mean:

http://tinyurl.com/a78bdn

Best.

bob said...

I posted this before the weekend, and expected to come back today to vitriol and polemic, but was surprised at the high quality of the commenting.

The statistics Anonymous quotes point to the urgent need for the left to develop a genuine project of Middle East solidarity, and engage in the many conflicts that scar the region, rather than focus on one.

John H's response is persuasive. "Immediate withdrawal, no weapons sales, demilitarization" is a far better slogan than "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions": more concrete, more meaningful.

I absolutely agree that the industry that we need to halt - with direct action if necessary - is the arms industry. A campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions that targets academics or baristas or beauty product stalls can never be anything other than gesture politics. (Harassing underpaid workers in these sorts of jobs is even worse.) If we seriously want peace and justice, the arms dealers are a far better target. It is comfortable for leftists and anarchos to go for soft targets instead of thinking through the consequences of their actions.

A brief glance at Sons of Malcolm didn't inspire - e.g. the defence of Arafat from corruption charges in the first couple of lines - but I'll go back and read more carefully.

I also broadly agree with Renegade Eye. Stupid analogies do not help the cause of solidarity; nor does the idea that Hamas are the legitimate voice of the Palestinians. (Fred's point about this is spot on: democracy when it suits us, not when it doesn't...)

I think the key point for me, following on from that, is that "Israel must lose" does not mean "Palestine must win"; it means, in the present context, Hamas must win: which means genocide.

I am not sure about Snoopy's line being crossed (the somewhere in between could be somewhere on the other side of a crucial line: certainly Eva Figes is far beyond that line!). Some of the signatories crossed that line long ago: Pappe, Mona Baker, Richard Seymour and so on. I suspect many others signed the letter without really giving it enough thought, because it came to them from someone they trusted while they were wringing their hands thinking we need to Do Something. I think David Hirsh's analysis at Engage, putting the letter on both sides of the line, is the correct analysis.

nationofduncan said...

I agree that there's a complete obsession with Israel/Palestine on the left, though I think this partly reflects the media saturation about events in the region, at the expense of much more horrific events such as what's happening in the Congo, arguably the worst global conflict since WWII.

Personally speaking though, I don't tend to write about the Congo because it's so horrific. I don't know how writers on the subject can even begin to engage with what has happened and is happening there.

Neil said...

I could certainly sign up to "Immediate withdrawal, no weapons sales, demilitarization" but like you query what 'Israel Must Lose' means. It's not a football match where we're being asked to cheer on the underdog, it's a war. The only way Israel could lose the war would be if Hamas and its allies were able to become more effective at killing conscripts and civilians than the Israeli military machine. Anything approaching this would lead to escalation and even more Palestinians as well as Israelis being killed. Of course Israel could lose if other Arab states weighed in militarily, but whoever' won' such a conflict, the result would be a regional if not global catastrophe with a death toll of (at least) hundreds of thousands. Who wants that?

fred vest said...

"The only way Israel could lose the war would be if Hamas and its allies were able to become more effective at killing conscripts and civilians"

that's the thing, the difference between israel and hamas is quantitative not qualitative - if only so called progressives could see this as clearly as most normal people are able to do so

(it's this same kind of blind logic that makes the cobweb left/liberals express support for say georgia in a scrap with russia, but then russia in a scrap with the US)

bob said...

Re Neil - "who wants that?" Quite.

Re Duncan - Congo: I know what you mean. A situation like that in DR Congo so exceeds my ability to understand that I avoid writing about it too. This, perhaps, points to a failure in the Marxist tradition to which we belong: Marxism tends towards the "correct" analysis, but is unable to approach moral understanding. Hence the gross inadequacy of Marxist accounts of the Holocaust.

John said...

Re: Neil 'football' /'Israel must lose'

There is no need to read the phrase as a statement as simplistic as football - I think the loss incurred through this crazy war is self-evident. There was no way to win, however allegedly 'smart' the weapons. Loss of global support would be one way to look at it - loss of the last shreds of legitimacy, that were torn asunder already in Lebanon in 2006, in 1982, in... etc etc.
And then we could also read the phrase in terms of necessary (lets impose it) loss of weapons deals (I campaign and write about anti-militarism/arms trade often - and not just in relation to Middle East, Congo or even Bougainvilles's secret dirty war, via the UK's Riotinto mining outfit and Tim Spicer's dodgy old mercenary crew).
For me, its about an inevitable loss - to lose the apparent god-given 'right' to march into Gaza with the intention to inflict an indiscriminate, criminal, 'disproportionate' response would also correlate with 'Immediate withdrawal, no weapons sales, demilitarization'. For me, this past few weeks, the Israeli state lost my support (again). They need do do much more than call a ceasefire to regain it.

And the horror begins anew/yet again with the prospect of an unseemly contest over who will get the billion dollar rebuilding contracts. I wonder if the people at KBR/Halliburton have moved in yet? Is Tony Blair taking calls for his 'economic initiative' [remember his suggestion for 'science parks']? And as Tim Spicer now works his Aegis shtick in Iraq he must be looking for future options.

john said...

'to do' not 'do do' :) -j